WASHINGTON -- America's Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved a statement Wednesday that urges states to withhold recognition for same-sex marriages.
The bishops said they did not intend to offend homosexuals, and they called discrimination against gays unjust. But the church leaders said they had an obligation to "give witness to the whole moral truth" and reinforce Catholic teaching that gay sex is a sin.
"Marriage is in crisis and will be further devalued and eroded unless we're strong in pointing out that same-sex unions are not the equivalent of marriage," said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., who led a committee that drafted the statement.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in September gave its general support to amending the Constitution to define marriage as a union of a man and woman. Pope John Paul II also spoke out last summer against gay marriage.
The prelates said they felt a need to make another public statement now -- as gay couples gain greater acceptance in society and seek the same benefits as heterosexual couples.
Vermont allows civil unions between gays, and laws in California and Hawaii extend some economic benefits to same-sex couples. Two Canadian provinces recently legalized gay marriage.
Last summer, gay rights groups scored a major victory when the Supreme Court struck down bans on gay sex. Last week, voters in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, approved a proposal allowing same-sex couples -- and also unmarried heterosexual couples -- to officially register as domestic partners.
While courts will not have to recognize those couples, supporters hope the measure will make it easier for them to share some benefits.
The bishops approved the statement by a vote of 234-3, with three abstentions. The prelates finished their work and decided to end their meeting Wednesday night, one day early.
The interfaith gay advocacy group Soulforce said the statement was "confusing, harmful and spiritually violent."
Said a group spokeswoman, Laura Montgomery Rutt: "When will the Catholic Church learn that this kind of spiritual violence leads to great pain, suffering and even death?"
Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, acknowledged that some may question how Catholic leaders can make statements on sexual morality following nearly two years of scandal over priests who molested children.
But he said the church must speak out "in season and out of season.
"Yes, the church is human, but she must run by the passion and the prophetic office given her by Christ," Gregory said.
The document, called "Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers About Marriage and Same-Sex Unions," defines marriage as a "lifelong union of a man and a woman." It states that approving a union of a same-gender couple "contradicts the nature of marriage."
"It is not based on the natural complementarity of male and female. It cannot cooperate with God to create new life," the statement says.
The document says authorizing same-sex marriage "would grant official public approval to homosexual activity and would treat it as if it were morally neutral."
The bishops said it would be wrong to redefine marriage to provide benefits for gay couples. Homosexual couples can obtain benefits, such as designating each other as beneficiaries of their wills, without granting them special status, the bishops said.
In a separate matter, the bishops directed a committee to draft a document aimed at teaching Catholics about the church's ban on artificial contraception. Surveys have found Catholics use artificial contraception at the same rate as non-Catholics.
A committee of bishops also presented a document to be used in dioceses for certifying that a priest from outside the United States is suitable for ministry.
The authors said conducting background checks on foreign-born priests was difficult, and the document would help ensure that sexually abusive clergy are not transferred between U.S. dioceses. About 16 percent of the nation's 46,000 priests are from other countries, the bishops said.
The prelates also revised instructions for Sunday services in parishes that have no priest. The changes include language emphasizing that holding the celebration without a clergyman should not be the norm. About 3,000 of the 19,000 U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest, according to Georgetown University researchers.
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